Sunday, November 13, 2016

Initial Thoughts on the Presidential Election of 2016

After what seemed like a four-year campaign, originally featuring over a score of prospective candidates from the two major parties, the Presidential election of 2016 came down to Donald Trump, a New York real estate mogul and professional portrayer of "Donald Trump" and Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State, two-term Senator from New York and two-term FLOTUS (First Lady Of The United States). The election cost billions of dollars, spawned thousands of hours of radio and tv advertising, and generated countless exchanges on Twitter and Facebook.  In what came as a surprise to the mainstream media and virtually all pollsters, Trump won a decisive victory in the Electoral College, despite Clinton winning the popular vote (the second Democrat in the last five elections to perform this unlikely feat). As of this writing the Electoral College has yet to meet (that will happen in December), but it looks like Trump should claim at least 290 electoral votes, 20 more than those needed to become the most powerful person in the world. 

I have been a keen observer of Presidential politics since 1984 (I was 14 that year) and it is safe to say that I am a heavy consumer of news and opinion writing. That said, I have been gifted with a remarkable lack of insight and intuition and generally my prognostications are well off the mark. Such brilliant predictions as "Bruce Babbitt is exactly what America needs in 1988" and "Dan Quayle will be elected President in 2000--count on it" have cemented my reputation as the anti-Nostradamus, so my friends should have taken my 2016 prediction with a grain of salt when I confidently proclaimed that Trump would lose by a giant margin, and would receive fewer votes than any Republican in years. 

But as I stayed up until 3AM on election night waiting to see what would transpire, I realized that in a way I was on to something. Far fewer people voted this year than normally do, and while numbers have changed the picture somewhat from the tweet at left I stand by my thesis that "unpopular choices and negativity" resulted in the large number of non-voters in 2016.

To be sure, it's not like America is a place where most people who have a chance to vote actually cast ballots.  Our friends at Wikipedia have a nice page on voter turnout, and in the eleven Presidential elections in my lifetime, the average participation of eligible voters has been 53.4%. Every one of these elections came after the 26th Amendment expanded the franchise to include all Americans over the age of 18, and includes the pathetic election of 1996, when Bill Clinton was re-elected with 49% of the vote of the 49% of the voters who voted. The Pew Center shows us that Americans are not disposed to expressing their opinion at the voting booth, especially compared to other countries.
Answers to the perpetual question of "Why don't more Americans vote for President" range from dissatisfaction with the choices, to disfranchisement of people with criminal records, to feeling of disempowerment on the part of the poor and minorities, to the difficulty in taking time on a weekday to stand in line and vote.  I hinted at this in a more alarmist tweet as election night turned into a dark, rainy day:

If we take a close look at the results of the last five Presidential elections, we can see that things are actually a little more complicated than we typically think. My favorite "go to" resource for results of American elections is the wonderful "Dave Leip's US Election Atlas". You can see detailed breakdown of the elections here:

I have always used this information when refuting the myth that "Ralph Nader's voters threw the election of 2000 to George W. Bush". First of all, if Al Gore had only won his own state of Tennessee, the Supreme Court would never have gotten involved in the election. Secondly, while Nader received over 2.8 million votes that year (including mine), can you remember how many candidates received votes that year? Well let's see there was Gore, and Bush, and Nader. Oh, and Buchanan of course. Four, right? Wrong! Over a dozen other individuals received more than 1 million total votes in 2000. Why don't they get any blame? Probably due to the mindshare that America's "two party" system holds, that makes most people unable to cognitively recognize other choices, even as protest votes.

And if that surprises you, it will doubtless be quite a shock to learn that at least 14 people in 2004, at least 21 people in 2008 and over 25 people in 2012 received Presidential votes. But now that you are over your surprise, you won't even blink when you see that TWENTY-NINE people other than Trump and Clinton claimed at least 300 votes last week. For all of your friends who castigated you that a "protest" vote for Gary Johnson was wasted, you can point to the 702 people who voted for Rod and Richard Silva on the Nutrition Party ticket. He was ready to wage war on cholesterol, and now we'll have to wait another four fatty years until that scourge can be addressed.

If you look closely at the data you'll see that I was sort of right, in that fewer people seem to have voted this year than expected. The American population is constantly growing (in 2000 it was 282 million, this year it is over 323 million) and the number of eligible voters grows accordingly. As a result, the total number of votes cast has increased nearly every election of my life, with two exceptions. For the last five elections, the numbers are:

  • 1992: 104,426,611
  • 1996: 96,275,640
  • 2000: 105,425,985
  • 2004: 122,303,590
  • 2008: 131,473,705
  • 2012: 129,237,642
  • 2016: 128,928,498* (votes are still being counted)

So the only times that the number of voters did NOT increase were in the aforementioned 1996 election when people were not excited about Bill Clinton and Bob Dole seemed like a sacrificial lamb nominated for a lifetime of service, rather than for any new ideas; 2012 when the excitement about Barack Obama had worn off and Mitt Romney was nominated for a lifetime of service, rather than new ideas (except for Romneycare, which he ran AWAY from); and 2016, when the two major parties nominated the least popular candidates ever and Hillary Clinton seemed to be nominated for a lifetime of service, rather than new ideas (except for the ones she adopted from Bernie Sanders). The lesson here to me is that if you want to get people excited about their choices, they need to have REAL choices, who present specific, unique ideas that resonate with the public.

One more dive into the data should suffice to prove this point. If you look at the raw vote data, you'll see that Trump was elected with fewer votes than any winner since 2000 (whoever you count as the "winner"). Beyond that, you'll see that compared to 2012, the number of votes was down all over the country, sometimes by large amounts. Perhaps California was such a foregone conclusion that we can excuse 30% fewer Democrats voting for Clinton than voted for Obama and 38% fewer Republicans voting for Trump than voted for Romney. But what about the so-called "battleground" states?  Iowa flipped from Democratic to Republican, and 20.88% fewer Democrats voted for Clinton than did for Obama four years ago (GOP votes were up in Iowa by over 9%). The story repeated itself in other parts of Clinton's "blue wall": In Ohio Clinton got 18% fewer votes than Obama did (and Trump improved on Romney by 4%) and in Michigan, the Democratic candidate got 11.59% less votes than Obama and Trump garnered 7.75% more votes than Romney to turn the state red. Wisconsin and Pennsylvania saw similar numbers. In short, people who were "expected" to vote Democratic were not inspired to go to the trouble of voting for a candidate who didn't excite them.


Over the last few years, as the endless Presidential election wound its way towards last winter's primaries and caucuses I told anyone who would listen that Hillary Clinton would never get elected President. I said that she was too old (wrong--Trump is a year older and just became the oldest person elected President) and that too many people distrusted her. In that, sadly, I seem to have finally been correct. When in 1998 Hillary Clinton decried the "vast right-wing conspiracy" against the Clintons people laughed, as one does when one hears a conspiracy theory. The only thing is, she was right--the conspiracy was real, and it was totally successful. Friends of mine on social media who were adamantly anti-Clinton (if not pro-Trump) openly speculated about such ridiculous, proven lies and myths such as Hillary's role in the suicide (they said murder) of her longtime friend and business parter Vince Foster in 1993. Many of these people were old enough to know better, but others were young enough that the "revelations" were new to them. 

I don't know what is going to happen in the next four years, and based on my record, any speculation would be wildly off-base anyway. But if the Democrats want to try to regain the White House, they need to find a young, exciting person with new ideas. Trump shows that the person doesn't need to have (any?) experience, just a gift for self-expression and an aura of success. Time will tell...

Thursday, July 14, 2016

"I Am Not Throwing Away My Shot": Thoughts on Hamilton

After putting it off for months, I finally listened to the soundtrack to "Hamilton: An American Musical" a few weeks ago and I was transfixed from the start. I've listened to it a lot more since then, and I can say that the awards and nominations are well deserved. For years I told my students that we study the past to make sense of today, and it is obvious that "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda agrees, having written a play that states unequivocally that "immigrants...we get the job done". I initially wanted to write two pieces, one discussing the art of this particular musical and another covering the historical accuracy, but it is impossible to separate the two, so I've put both things together below. Please note: the following will contain "spoilers", if there can be spoilers for something so plainly based on historical fact. But if you are waiting to see the play, you might want to stop here. 

As I've mentioned in previous posts (such as this one), I spent 12 years teaching history at the high school level (in fact, every year my final exam had a section of matching questions for which the right answers were the acrostic "HAMILTON"), and have been a serious student of American history for decades. Back in high school when I applied to Hampshire College, I had the idea that my Division III (think, senior project but really big) would combine my love of theatre and American history by writing a one-person play about the life of socialist labor leader Eugene Debs. Ultimately I went in a totally other direction (I studied labor-management relations in major league baseball) and decided that while it wasn't impossible to write a good play about American history (a classmate named Karen Sabo wrote a one-person play about Hollywood blacklisting and it was super), I KNEW it was impossible to write a musical about America that would be excellent artistically as well as historically. 

So imagine my surprise when I first heard about this musical. And not to pat myself on the back, but I am not a Johnny come lately to this topic, having read a long article about it in the New York Times four years ago, which referenced an even earlier public performance at the White House shortly after President Obama was inaugurated, that left me very eager for more. To that end, when I read this review of the play in its pre-Broadway run I eagerly petitioned to lead a school field trip to see the show. Unfortunately the history department head at my old school was a very hidebound person, and he rebuffed me, saying "I hardly think that there is any place for 'rap music' in a discussion of history."  

Well, let's just say that if I had a ten dollar bill for every time that guy was wrong about something I could afford to see "Hamilton" on Broadway! But there's no use crying over spilled milk.

Miranda has often told the story that, when reading Ron Chernow's biography of Hamilton, he was struck by the contemporary relevance of the man and his times:

“Just the hustle and ambition it took to get him off the island — this is a guy who wrote his way out of his circumstances from the get-go. That is part and parcel with the hip-hop narrative: writing your way out of your circumstances, writing the future you want to see for yourself. This is a guy who wrote at 14, ‘I wish there was a war.’ It doesn’t get more hip-hop than that.”
I spent a long time teaching the Revolutionary War, the ratification of the Constitution, the Washington and Adams administrations, the election of 1800 and the Burr-Hamilton duel to hundreds of students, and all I can say is, Miranda sums it all up amazingly well. His musical numbers are not only tuneful, rhythmic and dynamic, but they also express the agreed-upon facts concisely and clearly. At this point, I think that any U.S. History teacher who doesn't play excerpts from the soundtrack in class is missing a great chance to engage with the students. 

The musical is divided into two acts, each of which has Aaron Burr in the role of a Greek chorus, setting the stage with laser-cut imagery that would give any attentive audience member the basic historical grounding to follow what is about to come next.  Act I follows Hamilton from his origin in the West Indies to his arrival in America as a talented, orphaned immigrant at the outset of the Revolutionary War. We meet characters like Burr, the Marquis de Lafayette, George Washington, and Elizabeth, Angelica and Peggy, Hamilton's future wife and sisters-in-law, the Schuyler sisters. By the end of the first half of the show, the Revolutionary War has ended, and both Hamilton and Burr (who in many ways are mirror images of each other throughout the musical) are new fathers, as well as fathers of our country. Act II introduces us to new characters such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Maria Reynolds, with whom Hamilton had a disastrous adulterous affair (in a "you can't make this up" twist, in real life Maria Reynolds later divorced her husband and her lawyer was---Aaron Burr). The second act gives us a great look at Washington's neutrality policy, at the debate over the assumption of state debts, and the Election of 1800, and culminates in the duel in which Burr fatally shot Hamilton. 

There is much that I'd like to say about this show, but in the interest of brevity and clarity, I've confined myself to four topics. Each of them will let me explain what I like so much about this musical while also sharing some reflections about the history behind the lyrics.

Alexander Hamilton: 

Miranda is best, in my mind, when dealing with the biographical and psychological aspects of the title character. Hamilton was a desperate young man when he came to America, who (in a society that was very stratified and inaccessible to a man without property) longed for a war in which he could make his mark. A recurring theme lyrically and philosophically first appears in the third musical number, "My Shot". In it, Hamilton and his young friends are eager for the opportunities war will bring, and repeatedly vow, "I am not throwing away my shot." Miranda's Hamilton shows that he identifies with the new country which he will help build with his own blood and toil when he says: "Hey yo, I'm just like my country, I'm young, scrappy and hungry, and I'm not throwing away my shot." 

The show is also great at expressing the idea that Hamilton was a ball of energy (his wife asks him "why do you write like you're running out of time?") and ambition due to the difficult circumstances of his youth. That said, while not masking Hamilton's flaws, the show does minimize them. While the show does note that "Martha Washington named her feral tom cat after him", it is presented as an aspect of his personality prior to the marriage with Elizabeth Schuyler that (in a day when a wife's property became her husband's) established him at the upper levels of New York society. In real life, Hamilton was a serial adulterer and probably what we would call a functioning alcoholic (though, so were a lot of people at a time when the average American drank seven gallons of alcohol yearly). I used to describe him to my students as "the most self-destructive person in American History", and that is somewhat minimized in the musical.

The arc of the narrative does a good job of mirroring the arc of Hamilton's life. At the end, after playing a key role in ending  his rival Burr's political career, and following the death of his oldest son, Philip in a duel over Hamilton's honor, the former Federalist firebrand retired to a quiet life in New York. His nearly ruined marriage is depicted as recovering slowly, but it's clear that the ultimate politician has no future in government. It is really left up to the audience members to decide if Hamilton accepted Burr's challenge out of pride, or with a death wish. We've heard throughout the play that "history has its eyes on" Hamilton, and there is no doubt that his everlasting fame (at least, before Miranda got a hold of him) was due to his famous death.

Aaron Burr:

In a lot of ways, Burr is the other star of "Hamilton", in the same way that Judas is the other star of "Jesus Christ Superstar". As in the famous rock opera, where it takes Judas to bring Jesus to his apotheosizing death, Burr played a similar role in the history of the Founding Fathers. 

 The musical does a good job of establishing Burr's reputation as a chameleon-like political figure whose ethos "speak more" conceals his true feelings. Burr was an orphan, but as the show makes note, he came from what at the time was American royalty. His grandfather was Jonathan Edwards, whose "Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God"was the prototypical "fire and brimstone" sermon of the Great Awakening, while his father was a founder of what became Princeton University, thus making Burr the perfect mix of the Great Awakening and the Enlightenment; a sometimes incompatible mix that still causes conflict in our society today. I really like how the show seems to, in some ways, revolve around Burr's (remember, he's the narrator) frustration at having been passed in the race by a nobody. As Burr's character says at the start of Act I:

"How does a bastard, orphan, son of whore
And a Scotsman,
Dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot
In the Caribbean by Providence,
Impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?"

Not to take anything away from Aaron Burr. Burr was a legitimate war hero, having served in the doomed attack that was the Battle of Quebec, but he never reached the rank of general (compared to the younger Hamilton, who after years as Washington's aide-de-camp eventually rose (during the Adams presidency) to command the army of the United States.  In the 1790's Burr was a senator from New York (replacing Hamilton's father-in-law), and he became the third Vice-President of the US (and first to fail to become Chief Executive in his own right) in 1801. The play does a good job of showing how Burr and Hamilton had careers and lives in parallel for a long time, including serving as lawyers together, and having kids who (at least a little) might have humanized and settled them down. Tragically, both men outlived their oldest children.  

If Hamilton "wrote like he was running out of time", he wasn't alone. One of the great songs in the musical has characters marvel:

"Look around, look around at how lucky we are
To be alive right now!
History is happening in Manhattan and we just
Happen to be
In the greatest city in the world!"
and it wasn't just in New York that history was happening. For the first time, a small set of colonies overthrew the rule of the most powerful nation on the planet. A few years later, the people of France rose up against their rulers and literally remade the world. And after that, a smallish soldier born well but in a colonial backwater, rose up to become the Emperor of Europe. The example of Napoleon and his rapid rise along with the other titanic changes mentioned above must have made the similarly vertically challenged Burr (and Hamilton) believe that they lived in an annus mirabilis when dreams could come true. That gives extra meaning to the exchange at the end of Act II after Burr has defeated Philip Schuyler for the Senate:

Burr: ..Schuyler's seat was up for grabs, so I took it!
Hamilton: I've always considered you a friend.
Burr: I don't see why that has to end!
Hamilton: You changed parties to run against my father in law!
Burr: I changed parties to seize the opportunity I saw.
I swear, your pride will be the death of us all! Beware: it goeth before the fall. 
Of course, another of the many tragedies (both in the musical, and in real life), is that like Eliza Hamilton, Aaron Burr lived for 32 years after the fateful, fatal duel and never achieved what he must have thought was his destiny. 

The Duel:

I've been fascinated by the Burr-Hamilton duel ever since I was a teenager, when I first read "Burr: A Novel", by Gore Vidal, and when I saw the unrelated but visually striking movie, "The Duellists". One thing that makes me so interested is that there is no authoritative "truth" about the fatal gunfight between the sitting Vice-President and the former commanding general of the U.S. Army, therefore, it is the perfect example of how history can be whatever one wants it to be. 

I think it's important to remember that the age of Hamilton and Burr was one of short lives, quick death, and was in a lot of ways a small world. People didn't have long to make their mark, and in a small country, it was easier than it is now to rise to fame. The population of the United States in the 1800 Census (not counting Native Americans) was just over 5 million, and of them the following people couldn't vote:

  • men who did not own sufficient real estate
  • people under 21
  • all women
  • all slaves
as a result, in a close election like that of 1800, reputation mattered--there were only a few thousand voters in each state (even the bigger ones like New York) and a man's character was closely related to his honor, which at that time was the linchpin of his financial prospects. In a time when banks were rare and unstable, and when many people's wealth was tied to things of limited liquidity (such as crops yet to be grown, or slaves unable to be sold) wealthy men depended on their ability to borrow money from other men of the same social stratum. Many of the Founders spent their lives in debt to other wealthy men, and this was due to the fact that a gentleman would accept the word of another gentleman ("on my honor") that a debt would be repaid in full. In many cases, loans were made without collateral, because a man's honor was said to be enough. 

In the musical, as in life, Hamilton was brought down not by the adultery (and the related blackmail payments) of the Reynolds affair, but by his lengthy, detailed "Reynolds Pamphlet". In it, to show that he never abused the public trust, he told the world about his extra-marital affairs. Hamilton was so myopic that he could only focus on his reputation for financial probity and didn't care what he revealed about his shameful sexual behavior (and what it said about him as a husband)--after all, he wasn't looking for loans from women, was he?

No one knows what ultimately prompted the duel between Hamilton and Burr. As you probably remember from your history classes, the Constitution as written did not initially account for what was then known as political factions (we would say "parties"), and as a result the elections of 1796 and 1800 saw bitter rivals seeming to run together. In 1796, the Federalist John Adams became President while his Vice-President was Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson. For the next four years, Jefferson did everything he could to weaken Adams (while Hamilton, who was also a Federalist, did the same). To avoid such a thing happening again, the parties tried to establish a clear candidate for President and a younger, dare I say "lesser" candidate for Vice-President four years later.

The election of 1800 ended in a tie in the Electoral College between Jefferson and Burr. Adams and his sidekick Charles Pinckney clearly lost, but who won? Elections took much longer to conduct back then, and for months Burr refused to do what many (certainly Jefferson) expected him to do and admit defeat. Imagine the recent tension between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, but instead it's the actual election, and Sanders was young and refused to yield. Burr kept saying "as far as I can tell, I'm President", and he worked hard to get the House of Representatives to confirm it. When he finally lost to Jefferson on the 36th (!) ballot, he hoped that the Virginian would know that it had just been politics. Unfortunately, few people held grudges like Thomas Jefferson, and he made sure to ruin any chance of Burr ever rising to the White House.

Burr eventually accepted that he would have no place on the Federalist ticket in 1804, and instead sought to be elected governor of New York. Unfortunately a cabal including the unlikely partnership of Jefferson and Hamilton saw to his defeat. That same year, a letter to Hamilton's father-in-law Philip Schuyler was published in a newspaper in Albany, saying that at a recent dinner, Hamilton was heard to say "despicable" things about Burr. At this point, Burr had lost the votes of the powerful men in Albany, and he was probably in a vulnerable state. The letter said that Burr couldn't be trusted with power (which was bad enough)--what could have been more "despicable"?

We'll never know. But following the code of honor that made one accepted as a gentleman, Burr demanded Hamilton retract his statement and apologize. Hamilton essentially said that he was too drunk to remember what he said, and that he said so many things that he refused to apologize without Burr being more specific. The only result after that which would let Burr maintain face, maintain honor, and maintain status as a gentleman, was to challenge Hamilton to what they would have euphemistically called "an interview".

In my classes I would spend a day telling this story, and explaining the Code Duello, and how so-called gentlemen on both sides of the Atlantic would fight for honor. In typical fashion, Lin-Manuel Miranda does it better than I did and much more quickly, in the Act I number (reprised in Act II) "The Ten Duel Commandments". I would much rather play this recording than do my usual poor acting in front of the class!

Anyway, we know that Hamilton's pistols had a hair trigger, which would make them easier to fire. And as Miranda has Burr sing, "They won't teach you this in your classes, but look it up, Hamilton was wearing his glasses. Why? If not to take deadly aim?" Unfortunately, duelling was only quasi-legal then (in fact, it was against the law in New York, which is why gentlemen of the city rowed to New Jersey to fight), so there were not many witnesses. After everything was done, the two seconds (William Van Ness for Burr and Nathaniel Pendleton for Hamilton) issued a joint statement, but it doesn't say much. Basically, the men stood 10 paces apart; Hamilton's second would give the command to fire; the seconds disagreed over who fired first. Burr's papers from the time were lost at sea in the shipwreck that killed his daughter and grandson, so any contemporaneous record of his observations no longer exists. 

On the other hand, Hamilton (who always wrote like he was running out of time), penned a statement about the duel before he left for his rendezvous in Weehawken, in which he stated that his "religious and moral principles are strongly opposed to the practice of Duelling", and "I have resolved, if our interview is conducted in the usual manner, and it pleases God to give me the opportunity, to reserve and throw away my first fire, and I have thoughts even of reserving my second fire--and thus giving a double opportunity to Col. Burr to pause and to reflect." (italics in original) Basically, in a letter that was only to be read in the event of his death, Hamilton claimed that he planned to shoot his pistol in the air, to show Burr that he had "no ill will". But wouldn't it just have been easier to apologize then? Especially since to many, a refusal to fire at one's opponent was also a dishonorable act? 

In other words, at the end of his life, Hamilton would have us believe that he planned to "throw away his shot". This adds even greater poignance to the times earlier in the musical when he and other characters swear that they will NOT do so (in a different context, of course). 

At the end of the song "The World Was Wide Enough", Burr sings:
"Now I'm the villain in your history.I was too young and blind to see...I should have known.I should have knownThe world was wide enough for both HamiltonAnd me."
This is a great reference to one of my all-time favorite lines! Every year when I taught this class, I would have Burr's statement about the duel written on the board:
"Had I read Sterne more and Voltaire less, I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me." 

I love this quote. Not only is it a rueful acknowledgement by an old man of his previous lack of maturity, it also shows how books and authors can be so influential to our view of and conduct in the world.

The Music:

I am not a connoisseur of hip hop and modern R&B, so I will not be able to competently address the many references within Hamilton to music of the last few decades, though you can read articles that do so in what seems to be a very thorough fashion.  What I can do is write about how the music makes me feel. 

So many of the songs are so clever! I love how the character of King George comes off like the jealous ex-boyfriend par excellence in a song that sounds almost like '60s pop and sings, "when push comes to shove, I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love". I love how Lafayette sings in a silly French accent (and then the same actor plays Thomas Jefferson in Act II, newly returned from France). I love the feeling of pride that swells up in me when I hear "The World Turned Upside Down", which describes victory at the Battle of Yorktown, and conveys the feeling of limitless opportunity. 

It's important to remember that it's not just young men at pivotal points in history who believe that the world lies at their feet. That is a sentiment common with the young, especially the young of a relatively privileged background. I've previously quoted from the song "The Schuyler Sisters":
"Look around, look around at how lucky we are /To be alive right now! / History is happening in Manhattan and we just / Happen to be / In the greatest city in the world!" 
When I first heard the recordings, and every other time since, hearing the characters sing of their joy and optimism has filled me with a deep sadness. Miranda is such a great writer, that he can accurately put his characters into an authentic state of self-awareness. To a young person, with the future yet to be written, such moments are genuinely exciting and full of limitless potential. But knowing as I do what is to befall the characters, and the country, I can't share their hopeful feelings. There is also the fact that I'm not 24 anymore, and I know how time can change people's lives. All of that comes through for me when I hear this song, and I tip my hat to Miranda for being such a powerful writer.

Speaking about sadness, I am not ashamed to say that parts of this musical brought tears to my eyes. Apparently I'm not alone, because if you Google "Hamilton makes me cry" you get over 2.5 million hits! Others have written about this ("10 Times I Lost My Sh*T Watching Hamilton The Musical"; Hamilton An American Musical Has Me Crying Nerd TearsThe Emotional Hooks of Hamilton, Why The Soundtrack Makes Me Cry Every Single Time) better than me. But I have to say that several parts of the show never fail to get me; I listened to the soundtrack on an airplane recently, and sat flying over Louisiana with tears streaming down my face.  Without discussing the music itself, the the songs whose lyrics have the biggest emotional power over me are:

  • A Winter's Ball and Helpless: "A Winter's Ball" shows when young, good looking (but out of his depth) Alexander is put into the orbit of the Schuyler sisters. Miranda is so good at using vocal style to convey young Alexander as being unprepared for what he sees in New York (but willing to learn how to succeed). After setting the stage that a good marriage can make a man, the show segues into "Helpless". I love the harmony of the three sisters, and when they sing, "Helpless! Look into your eyes and the sky's the limit I'm helpless! Down for the count and I'm drowning in 'em" I can't help but think of how I feel when I look at my wife.
  • Satisfied: In this song, Angelica Schuyler is at the wedding of Hamilton and her sister. She remembers falling in love almost at first sight with Alexander, but deciding that a match with him would be unwise, and passing him onto her sister, so "at least I keep his eyes in my life". Later in the show it is clear that Angelica has always had an affection for Hamilton, though when his infidelities disrupt Eliza's life, her sister is clearly on her side. I have always been deeply affected by stories of someone loving another from afar, and this song touches that nerve.
  • Dear Theodosia: I'm not a father, but even so, songs about fatherhood have always ripped me up. This one from the end of the first act is particularly moving; the song shows the humanity (previously unglimpsed) in Burr (who sings to his new baby daughter) and Hamilton (who sings to his new baby son). Knowing that both men would outlive their children adds poignancy to the music. What parent, or for that matter caring adult hasn't looked at an innocent child and felt "I'll make the world safe and sound for you...If we lay a strong enough foundation we'll pass it on to you, we'll give the world to you, and you'll blow us all away"?  This song is incredibly moving on its own, but it also lends power the the duel scene in Act II, when Burr swears that Hamilton "will not make an orphan of my daughter". 
  • It's Quiet Uptown: This song from Act II shows a despondent, broken Hamilton trying to recover after the death of his son Philip in a duel. The refrain of the song breaks my heart:
"If you see him in the street, walking by
Himself, talking to himself
Have pity, 
He is working through the unimaginable"
       I know that I can't imagine a sorrow deeper than that of a parent who loses a child. This song in particular makes me think of someone close to me whose son (whose middle name was Philip)died before his time, as well as all of the other people who have to get on with their life in the face of incalculable grief. 

  • Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story: Other than losing a child, losing a spouse is the other unfathomably horrible tragedy a person can face. In my own group of family and friends there are several examples of this, and it is my deepest personal dread. This song tells how Eliza Hamilton tried to carry on her husband's work (and posthumously burnish his reputation) for the decades after his death. She worries if "when my time is up, have I done enough?", and notes that her greatest pride is in founding an orphanage:
"I help to raise hundreds of children.
I get to see them growing up.
In their eyes I see you, Alexander
I see you every time."
      Having devoted my own life to teaching other people's children, this line really hits me hard. 


The night before the duel, among the many other documents Hamilton penned, he wrote to his wife:
"I need not tell you of the pangs I feel, from the idea of quitting you and exposing you to the anguish which I know you would feel. Nor could I dwell on the topic lest it should unman me....Adieu best of wives and best of Women. Embrace all my darling Children for me.   Ever yours, AH."
I have no doubt that Alexander Hamilton was as I spent years describing him, a bitter, self-destructive man whose paranoia and hate led to a death before his time. But I am indebted to Lin-Manuel Miranda for his perceptive understanding of the man's personality, as well as for his brilliant, keen writing, which has helped me regain an appreciation of Hamilton as a person (as opposed to An Historical Figure) whose emotions I feel I can now touch and comprehend.  If you haven't seen Hamilton, I hope you will try to get tickets if it comes to your town or if you go to New York. If you haven't listened to the soundtrack, I hope the excerpts in this article inspire you to buy the album. And if you haven't studied this period of history since school, I hope this might make you want to go to the library to pick up some books; it will definitely be worth the trip.

Friday, July 1, 2016

My Back Pages: A Look at Guitar Player Magazine Back Issues #4--R.I.P. Scotty Moore

2016 continues to bring bad news on the rock and roll front. Halfway through the year, and we have had to endure the loss of more than a few legendary musical figures, and this week a true pioneer of rock music passed away.

If anyone could truly be said to have been "present at the creation" of rock and roll, it was Scotty Moore, a Memphis based guitarist who was one of Sam Phillips' go to musicians at Sun Studios, and who the producer asked to help put together the first sessions for young Elvis Presley. Scotty went on to form (with Bill Black and DJ Fontana) Elvis' first band, the band that cut the legendary Sun sessions, made the groundbreaking television appearances and worked with Elvis until he entered the Army.  This video from the Milton Berle show (live on a Navy ship, apparently), shows the power that the band got from a very small amp, a tiny drum kit, and a doghouse bass:

Scotty Moore was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, and he put out some music of his own over the years (though it is very hard to find these days), but spent most of his career as a producer and engineer. When I think of him, I think of a really terrific July 1997 cover story Guitar Player magazine ran on him. I pulled the issue out of my collection (I have every Guitar Player from 1986-2010) and found several bits that you might find interesting.
In the article, Scotty described the fateful meeting in 1954: 
"I remember thinking, 'what in the hell kind of name is that--Elvis.' He was real nice though. Kinda shy and he sang pretty good."
"I had a band, the Starlight Wranglers, and we had a steady gig on the weekends at a place called the Bon Air. I knew we had to have a radio show or a record out to book better playing jobs, so we'd done one record with Sam. I think it sold about 12 copies. He'd been telling me about this kid and I wanted to see what he was all about."
"When Sam set up the audition, which ended up being Elvis' first Sun session, he said he just wanted to hear the voice with a little background in there for rhythm...With no drums it sounded so empty, and I was trying to fill things up a little. That's why I went to the thumb and fingers style, trying to keep a heavier rhythm and just stabbing in fill notes. I'd been listening to Merle Travis and Chet Atkins for a couple of years after I got out of the Navy in '52. I would try to figure out how in the hell they were doing all that."
In the article, Scotty Moore said that after Elvis' comeback special on TV in 1968 he never heard from Elvis again, and devoted his time to running his recording studio. He noted that after that concert he gave up playing for a long time:
"I just laid my guitar down, cold turkey. I didn't play for 24 years--not a note, except for just a few overdubs for some friends. Didn't even own a guitar for a long time. I sold my Super 400, everything except my amp. If somebody would ask me if I missed playing, I'd say 'Hell no! I'm playing a whole band here with the console.' Besides, I really didn't want to deal with all the bullshit that had grown up around the other part of the business anymore, and I wanted to stay home. I'd done all the traveling I wanted to do for awhile."

The article also includes a short review of James Dickerson's That's Alright Elvis-The Untold Story of Elvis' First Guitarist and Manager, Scotty Moore by Jas Obrecht. Obrecht includes a quote from the book describing how things changed when Elvis hired Col. Tom Parker to be his new manager:
"We knew from day one the Colonel didn't want [Bill Black and Moore] around," Moore says. By the summer of '55 Scotty and Bill had gone from being members of a trio sharing a 50/25/25 split to salaried sidemen earning $200 a week while working, $100 during down time. "People were laughing at us," Moore says. "Even the guys selling souvenir books were making more money than we were."
It's common to read about how the founders of rock and roll, especially African-Americans, were taken advantage of by the music industry, but Scotty Moore was also a victim of an exploitative system. He was just as responsible as Elvis himself for inspiring a generation of future guitar heroes to pick up the instrument. Obrecht's review, however, sums up the tangible benefits that Moore derived from his creative genius:
From the $50,000 Elvis pulled in from the Ed Sullivan Show, Scotty reports that he pocketed $235. They received no record royalties, concessions income, free cars or big bonuses. They had to buy their own wardrobe for Jailhouse Rock....His total take for 14 years with Elvis: $30,123.72.
You can learn more about Scotty Moore on his website. He will be missed, but it's safe to say that there will be good rockin' in heaven tonight.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

My Back Pages: A Look at Guitar Player Magazine Back Issues #3--R.I.P. Prince

In what is becoming an all-too common refrain in 2016, another amazing musician has died. Prince, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, was only 57 years old when he was found dead in an elevator at his Paisley Park studio on April 21. A few months ago after the death of David Bowie, I wrote"I can't say that I loved (or even appreciated) all of [his] music--in fact, it would take a person with very wide tastes indeed to say that. But I've... definitely appreciated him in several guises.". 

In some ways, I could say the same about Prince: I never bought one of his records (though I listened to him regularly until he pulled his music from Spotify last year) or saw him in concert, and there is no doubt that a lot of his incomprehensibly massive discography left me puzzled. Having said that, I always admired him as a musician (and as a performer and a producer and a songwriter) as a fearless trailblazer for alternative approaches to binary views of sexuality and as a courageous campaigner against the exploitative framework we accept as "the music business". 

Prince was a musical prodigy who played all of the instruments on several of his records. He was an outstanding guitarist, keyboardist, drummer and bassist as well as a great vocalist. He mastered the emerging technologies of music at an early age, and used sampling and digital technologies so proficiently that most listeners probably didn't even notice; for instance, in many cases his "guitar" on record was a sample of his axe played on a keyboard. 

Prince's cultural impact is almost incalculable. His unexpected death hit the world like a shock wave--his Wikipedia page was viewed over 800 times per second for over 10 million hits in the first day. He had a particularly inspirational effect on people whose sexuality did not fit the standard prescription, and a Google search for "Prince black queer" yields over 1 million results. Prince was different in one particular way from Michael Jackson, the other androgynous music superstar-genius of the 1980's with whom he was often conflated: while Jackson seemed to try to minimize (erase?) his blackness, Prince proudly embraced it, publicly participating in the #BlackLivesMatter movement in ways expected (such as releasing the song "Baltimore" after the death of Freddie Gray), and less so (inspiring the creation of #YesWeCode to teach low income youth to program computers). As writer Laur M. Jackson wrote in Fader, "Prince was black as fuck"

Prince was also a supporter of, and fan of, women musicians. From the songs he wrote for Sheena Easton, Sheila E, Vanity 6, the Bangles and Sinead O'Connor (among others), to giving women musicians, such as Sheila E, Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, and 3rdeyegirl prominent spots in his bands Prince respected women as equal collaborators in ways that are frankly impossible to imagine from nearly any other similarly famous bandleader. He always made sure to give praise to women artists who inspired him, from Joni Mitchell to Janelle Monae, and he never made it seem patronizing.

Prince was particularly famous (and ridiculed) for the time period when he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol (and became "The Artist Formerly Known as Prince"). While people seemed to focus on "outrageous" aspects such as the symbol, or when he wrote "Slave" on his face, not enough people realized that he was standing up for his rights as an artist and creator of valuable and personally meaningful works. It boiled down to Prince wanting to own (and wanting all musicians to own) the full rights to the fruits of their creative endeavors. As he famously said of his pursuit of the recordings from which records, CDs and digital downloads are sourced "if you don't own your masters, your masters own you". Powerful words from a musician, and even more deep from an African-American.

As I've noted previously, I have every Guitar Player magazine from 1986-2010, and I often reread the back issues. Prince did not appear as often as I would have liked in the pages of the magazine, and his two cover articles by Art Thompson (January 2000 and July 2004) are rather sparse on actual content from the musician. Ironically, the deepest article about Prince came in the August 1993 issue in a feature about New Power Generation guitarist Levi Seacer, Jr.  What follows are some excerpts from the three articles:

January 2000 :
Do you conceive songs and arrangements in their entirety or do you play around with the music and lyrics until you get what you want? 
Prince: I always know what the whole thing is going to sound like. It's all in here [taps his head], but it's in here too [points at the console]. 
Recording hardware is part of the songwriting process? 
Prince: I use punch-ins and spot-erasing as a compositional style--that's how I build and edit arrangements and performances. I'm quick enough with the record button that I can shave a letter off a word. But that's because I've been doing it for 20 years.
How do you create rhythm tracks?
Prince: I generally build my tracks one at a time, but sometimes I use the band to get the rhythm down. In a way, it's more fun to get it out of people. You know, an idea is still yours even if you give it to someone.
Is it easier for you to play all the instruments?
Prince: It's not easier, but when I play all the instruments I'm not as greedy. I'm more greedy when we play live [laughs]. 

July 2004 :

Thompson asked Prince about his then current system of giving concert goers a copy of his latest album Musicology (which was not available in stores):

"The CD is included in the ticket price, and we’re giving out approximately 50,000 copies each week in order to keep increasing the exposure to the new album. Right now, we’re only playing a few songs from Musicology in the show, but that will change as people become more familiar with it.” 
Although the massive giveaway seemed like an expensive way to promote an album, Prince disagreed. “It costs nothing to make the CDs,” he says. “And the benefit of having your artistic freedom is that there won’t be anyone forcing you to do a remix or anything else you don’t want to do. I don’t believe in remixing songs that are in the key of life. When the record people get in there and say, ‘Why don’t you do it like this?’ Well, that’s their prerogative if they own the contract. But bands break-up over contracts—just talk to the Eagles about that. I’ve asked record execs why they aren’t under contract with each other, and all I get is, ‘That’s a very funny idea, Prince.’ See, the fight for me has always been about freedom and ownership. It’s simply preposterous to me that someone is going to own your work in perpetuity.”

Later in the article, Prince bemoaned the current crop of young rock musicians and their lack of musical depth:

“I like the audience to be as sophisticated as my music is,” says Prince, “and, sometimes, I’ve had more fun doing challenging things in after-show concerts than playing the hits at the main show. The best players used to play rock and roll. The first time you heard Boston, it was this huge, amazing sound with all that guitar doubling. Same with Brian May—nobody sounded like him. I still think of Return to Forever as a rock band. Those guys could really play, but there ain’t nobody doing that in rock these days.”

He finished the piece by talking about the role his influences played in his creative process:

With only minutes to spare before showtime, Prince concluded the interview by saying, “When I changed my name back to Prince, I went into intense study of the bible with my friend Larry Graham. It gave me a sense of the world that I didn’t have before. For a long time, I was into living life to its fullest in every way possible—including spending as much time in the studio as I could. And while I still spend so much time in the studio that people say I should be in a 12-step program, at least now I know where I’m headed. Any musician who learns everything about their instrument will only know who they are if they spend the time to know God. That’s why I don’t like to talk about gear. People will go out and buy that stuff thinking it’s going to make them sound like me, and that’s not where it’s at. Go get your own stuff and come up with your own sounds. If you need a path to follow, a good place to start is by listening to Ike Turner—he was as tight as they come—or James Brown, who is all about rhythm. Put any colors you’ve learned from Joni Mitchell on top of that, and then you’ve got something!”  

The 1993 article about Levi Seacer, Jr. was written by Chris Gill, and to me it captured Prince as a musician better than either of the cover stories from the following decade. The following are some lengthy quotes that helped the 23 year-old version of me come to more fully appreciate Prince as a musician and bandleader:

With all due respect to James Brown, Prince is the hardest working man in show business. Over his 15-year career he has completed 15 albums (including the unreleased Black Album), made three movies, toured the world several times, and produced dozens of artists. When Prince announced his retirement from studio recording last April, he revealed that he had 500 completed songs in the can. That's enough material to allow him to release a new album every year until 2025.

"The funk thing has always been heavy with Prince," says Levi. "Every night [the band] try to out-funk each other. We know where the breaks  are going to be, but after the break hits we play whatever we want. Each of us is thinking 'What can I do to get Prince to make the funk face?' You know, when you play something funky and you make that face where it looks like something's stinkin'. Every night we try to come up with something new. When he makes that face we go 'Okay. Got it.'

More than anything, Prince's long-overdue U.S. tour has reminded the public of the magnitude of the man's talent. Few artists of his stature are as talented in one area as Prince is in many. Levi comments: "People don't realize that he can do all that stuff. Even when he's playing they don't realize it. I think it takes a couple days to sink in. They'll go home and go 'Wow. He went from singing to playing the guitar to the piano and dancing. He did all of that.' But when they're there he does it so good that I don't think they realize that he's super talented. They take it for granted."

The one positive to come out of this week is that it has become evident that there were countless people who did not take Prince for granted.  So take some time to dig into your record collection (or log into Tidal) and give an American genius some of your time. You'll be better off for having done so.